A Ghanaian funeral is not simply a time to mourn; it is a time to celebrate life. As part of the tradition, Ghanaians will wear the colors of black and white to symbolize death, but also feelings of joy. While first Director of the Ghana campus Tom Oates was not buried in Ghana, Director of Webster Ghana Christa Sanders and her faculty ensured he was remembered as one of their own.
“When we learned of Dr. Oates’ funeral in the U.S., our entire staff came into work wearing traditional Ghanaian funerary attire,” Sanders said. “We came in black and white for him, we had a moment of silence, and we were able to talk and share stories and the experiences we had with him.”
Oates died on Oct. 6, 2017. Sanders, along with Ghana’s previous Head of International Relations Leonard Suransky, remembered him as one who loved Webster and community outreach and was loved by many in Ghana.
“This is a developing world; there is a big difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots,” Sanders said. “There is an emerging middle class, but we know how the majority of people are living. Dr. Oates was very sensitive to that and was very involved with community outreach.”
Suransky recalled a time when Oates welcomed his driver, Richard, to live in his two-bedroom apartment when he needed assistance. One staff member at the Ghana campus, who was fond of Oates and his family, named his daughter after Oates’ wife, Peggy.
Sanders also said he wanted to help others be able to receive an education and frequently assisted those in need so they could receive a quality education.
“Fundamentally, he was a caring, giving, loving man who wanted the best for society,” Sanders said. “And that, I think, speaks volumes about who he was.”
Akwaaba, welcome to Ghana
In 2012, Webster began the process of establishing its first campus in Africa. Webster approached Oates about the position of campus director. Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, International Campuses and Initiatives Peter Maher said his background made him a top candidate.
“He had a lot of experience in Africa,” Maher said. “He had a lot of interest in international education in general, but he had a lot of experience prior to coming to Webster in Africa. Also, he had a great understanding of university operations and in terms of what a university should be doing to improve their standings in the market and enrollment.”
Sanders added Oates’ love for Webster and for Ghana made him the perfect person to establish the campus.
“He was so passionate about Ghana and what we were starting in Ghana,” Sanders said. “Webster was extending its reach beyond Europe, Asia and the United States to go into unknown territory of sub-Saharan Africa. He was absolutely ecstatic about the campus.”
As the first director, Oates’ responsibilities ranged from obtaining the location of the campus to hiring professors, lecturers and staff. He also set up an academic curriculum that matched the level of the home campus in the U.S. The first location of the Ghana campus was near the U.S. Embassy in the Cantonments region in Accra.
Sanders said one of the most difficult aspects, however, was obtaining the appropriate accreditation.
“In Ghana, you cannot operate as an institution without proper accreditation and certainly not as a foreign entity without the backing and approval of the National Accreditation Board (NAB) of Ghana,” Sanders said. “Obtaining accreditation is a very difficult process.”
Oates and the Webster Ghana campus were granted accreditation from the Ghana Ministry of Higher Education and NAB in July 2013.
Previous Associate Vice President and Director of International Programs Grant Chapman said the first director was not necessarily the person who will be there long-term. Chapman said Oates specifically was there to specialize in the start-up and creation of the campus.
Oates spent nearly two years establishing the campus when Sanders became the director of the Ghana campus. Sanders said she considered Oates instrumental in her transition to her role citing his positive energy and background with Webster as helpful in a mentoring capacity.
“I very much looked up to him,” Sanders said. “He helped me become more sensitive and understanding to Webster’s institution, what its goal is, what its mission is. You can read about its mission, but to hear about it first hand from someone who has lived and breathed it since the ‘70s is an amazing experience and exchange to have.”
Sanders said even after Oates left the Ghana campus in her hands, he kept in contact with her through frequent phone calls to exchange ideas and suggestions. She said they both had a common love for Ghana, the Ghanaian people and providing Webster students an opportunity to experience something different.
Oates began his work with Webster University in 1970, when it was known as Webster College. He started as the coordinator and director of program assistants and counselors.
In 1972, he became director of the Media Center and became a founding director of the media and journalism undergraduate degree program. This program would later become Webster’s School of Communications.
Sanders said Oates had a great love for Webster University. Even after spending time working in higher education at Rocky Mountain College, Spalding University and Urbana University, Oates came back to St. Louis determined to work again at Webster University.
Oates officially announced his retirement from Webster University in the spring 2017 after a combined 15 years of service to the school.
Oates recalled in his retirement announcement from May 2017 when moving back to St. Louis, he wanted to be within five minutes of the Webster Groves campus. When his real estate agent asked him why he wanted to live near the university even though he did not work there, he replied with he did not work there now, but he will.
“I can remember Dr. Oates giving me every piece of history of Webster University, from the early founding in 1915 with the Sisters of Loretto up to present day,” Sanders said. “He just knew every aspect of this school. He just loved Webster University.”